10 October 2005

Eleatic Answer: 1

I realize now that my concerns about the commonly accepted story of presocratic philosophy have led me to share Patricia Curd's view of its shortcomings, although I don't think I can accept her own alternative story.

Here is the problem. There is a 'Standard Account' (as Curd calls it) of the history of presocratic philosophy, which in outline is embraced by the most common texts and books on the subject in English: Barnes' two volume treatment; his popular and concise Penguin volume; KRS; Guthrie; McKirahan; and Hussey. This account is heavily influenced by Owen's "Eleatic Questions".

But the Standard Account is incoherent, because it puts forward an inconsistent triad:

1. Parmenides was influential.
2. Parmenides used arguments in philosophical logic to conclude that reality is single, unchanging, and perfect.
3. Parmenides' successors did not engage in philosophical logic and held that reality is plural, changing, and imperfect.

As Curd remarks:

On this standard account, the later Presocratics, such as the Pluralists and the Atomists, failing to see the futility of engaging in cosmological inquiry, try to answer Parmenides by agreeing that coming-to-be and passing-away are not real. Nevertheless, they still attempt to give rational accounts of the changing sensible world, insisting that a plurality of unchanging things underlie and explain that world. Moreover, these later Presocratics give no attention to problems of reference and meaning, offering no evidence that they recognized these issues as Parmenides' concerns. So either they must have badly misunderstood Parmenides, or else their answers were quite feeble (Legacy of Parmenides, paperback version, p. 12).

On the standard interpretation we must either attribute serious misunderstandings of Parmenides to later thinkers or claim that they felt free to ignore his arguments while accepting certain of his assumptions about what-is (13).
There seem to be only two ways out: either (i) deny that Parmenides was (in any non-superficial sense) influential for later presocratics, or (ii) hold that he did importantly influence them, but that his arguments and conclusions were not as the Standard View maintains.

Curd defends (ii). Parmenides, she says, did not assert 'numerical monism', that only one thing really exists. He wanted only to insist upon 'predicational monism' (as she calls it), viz. that whatever exists has to be (in a suitably strong sense) one. It is consistent with 'predicational monism', she asserts, that many sorts of things exist, and that these, although changeless in themselves, change relative to one another.

I rather favor (i), in a qualified form. I do so, briefly, because it seems to me that predicational monism, by a very quick route (one that Parmenides could not have but seen), implies numerical monism; also, because we can allow that Parmenides' influence was limited and 'negative'--in the sense that he points to a (relatively circumscribed) deficiency in the earlier tradition-- rather than being extensive and positive. (Compare the influence of Hume on Reid, versus his influence on Kant.) But this is for later posts.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

"On this standard account, the later Presocratics, such as the Pluralists and the Atomists, failing to see the futility of engaging in cosmological inquiry, try to answer Parmenides by agreeing that coming-to-be and passing-away are not real" (Curd as quoted above).

I don't understand this--nor e.g. McKirahan (240-41), where the fragments of Empedocles collected under the heading "Response to Parmenides" all signal agreement! How is it an answer or reply to agree?

The following is crude but suppose we describe the post-Eleatic philosophers as trying to continue "the Milesian project" (later called/understood as historia phuseos) while making as few departures from Parmenides as necessary in order to do that (obviously "few" and "necessary" raise many questions but think of them as e.g. departing from Parmenides only in positing [a] multiplicity and [b] locomotion)? Then we can read later Eleatics (Zeno, Melissus) as replying to them that even these departures--comparatively minor, by contrast with the original Milesian systems--are no good. Then (after them) come the Atomists who, seeing this, bite the bullet and posit the reality of what is not.

If memory serves this story comes from Furley, The Greek Cosmologists, except his acct. is infinitely more sensitive and nuanced then the crude caricature sketched above (the point of which is to tell a coherent story). (It was certainly while reading Furley that the story dawned on me. If I have him wrong then I retract the attribution.)

Eric Brown said...

Like Anonymous, I am not sold on Curd's argument against the "Standard Account." Why is it so difficult to believe that although Empedocles and Anaxagoras follow Parmenides in rejecting the possibility of (substantial) generation and corruption, they're not sold on Parmenides' inference that plurality and motion are impossible? (That seems a rather sensible response to Parmenides, I would have thought.) The only reason Curd and Pakaluk give for thinking that Empedocles and Anaxagoras cannot have this complicated response to Parmenides is that we have no evidence of them explaining why they doubt Parmenides' inference that plurality and motion are impossible. But why should I accept this argument from silence when the evidentiary record is so fragmentary? If we think that their rejection of substantial generation and corruption is due to Parmenides, then we do have evidence that they rejected the inference to the impossible of plurality and motion. We lack only the evidence for their *reasons*. But, really, how much evidence do we have for their reasons for *anything*?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Anonymous: The story you describe, to my mind, makes Empedocles and Anaxagoras into merchants or engineers, rather than philosophers. What is this attitude of 'making as few departures ...as necessary'? I don't see that they were intent on saving the endoxa, or that they accepted reflective equilibrium as the method of cosmology. Why not say, simply, that they 'borrowed' one idea from Parmenides, and leave it at that? --leaving it undetermined whether they grasped, were impressed by, or were at all worried by Parmenides' arguments. Of course, this would, so far, make for a fairly uninteresting history.

Eric: The Standard Account can be reconciled with the evidence, but the question is why, on that evidence, we should accept the Standard Account in the first place. Perhaps we need to say (as your last remark might suggest) that the evidence is simply too fragmentary to do history of philosophy here.

I take it that history of philosophy means uncovering the intelligible connections between earlier and later philosophical arguments and claims (not simply 'borrowing', and not merely 'influence'). The difficulty in the Standard Account is that it has so magnified the power and scope of Parmenides' arguments, that it makes a piecemeal acceptance (or rejection) of him difficult to account for. Sure, that's possible. But we have no record of any reasons for that.

Better then, perhaps, to try to reduce the gap by making Parmenides' claims more modest, as Curd does. Or one might simply resist claiming any philosophical influence.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous again (in a rush).

1. Why think Emp & Anax were worried by Parmenides arguments? B/c of verbal echoes of Parmenides' and his reasoning in the extant fragments. (E.g. Furley is esp. nice on the first sentence of Anaxagoras' book, reading it as a correction of Parmenides.)

2. Re: merchants. To borrow an anachronistic terminology, it is not easy in any case to see how Parmenides' remarks about being and not being, even granting that they are sufficient to rule out the possiblity of substantial change, are sufficient to rule out [a] plurality and [b] the possibility of accidental sorts of change. (Correction: it is not so hard to see how they rule out qualitative change, if you think, as is nat'l, that that must be due to substantial change of fundamentl entities--see A's crit of Emp in GC I (I think ch 1).) If then we suppose that Emp & Anax were in this respect not unlike us, we needn't think them unprincipled. (Right: we needn't think the only principled course is to follow Parmenides altogether or not at all.)

3. I think in general it is useful, not just to compare and contrast Emp & Anax w/Parmenides, but also and esp. w/the Milesians, and ask: to what extent can the differences between Emp-Anax and the Milesians be account for by the fact that Parmenides came between? (To pick just one example: why, contrary to all the Milesians, suppose that there are many archai? Suggestion: b/c there will be no other way to generate multiplicity and difference now that we are without generation/destruction and alteration--as the Milesians were not.)

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Anonymous,

Would you say there is any influence of Parmenides over those who come later, beyond that which leads them to reject potentiality (or, perhaps, which leads them to embrace clearly ex nihilo, nihil fit)? If not, then would it not be a better history to interpret Parmenides' poem, if possible, as essentially insisting on no more than this? And yet that is how I understand Curd's strategy.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Michael. I think I want to say yes in answer to your question.

1. Everyone (Parm, Anax, Emped) agrees that nothing comes to be *from nothing*. But they seem also all to agree simply that *nothing comes to be* (period). [NB: the Milesians appear to accept the first (e.g. none of them think that in the beginning there was nothing), but (pace Aristotle) to reject the second (at least if we take Parmenides and Anaxagoras and Empedocles to be correcting not only "the Greeks" in general but also and in particular the Milesians).]

2. This raises the question: why did these thinkers maintain not just the first but the second too? And I want to suggest in answer to this question that [a] Anax & Emp were moved by roughly the same sorts of considerations as moved Parmenides, and further that [b] although Anax & Emp thought these considerations good reasons for thinking that what is cannot come to be (nor indeed increase or diminish or alter), they did *not* think them good or at any rate compelling reasons for thinking that what is cannot be many or move (sc. from place to place).

3. What considerations were these? Very roughly, that to suppose that what is *can* come to be (or increase or diminish or alter) gets one all tangled up with (pardon the pun) unspeakable problems about "what is not." (Parmenides thought we get thus tangled up if we suppose that what is moves or is many; Anax & Emp thought otherwise. Melissus & Zeno argued that they were wrong to think otherwise. The Atomists agreed but insisted that the problems about what is not are not so unspeakable.)

*****
Maybe this story is false. But I don't yet see why the main plot is fundamentally broken or incoherent or in some other way internally unsatisfying.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Anonymous,

Perhaps I misunderstand you, but it seems to me that you are saying that the post-Eleatics do no more than deny potentiality. The reason why nothing can come to be X, is that this would require its first being true that there was something of which it is true to say that it possibly will be X. But (a suitably reduced Parmenides might insist) this thing either is X already, or it is not. If it is, then there is no 'will be'. If it is not, then there is no special sense in which this can be X (at least, no sense different from what we might attribute to an entirely different object, or even to nihil, from which, everyone grants, nothing comes). Potentiality is an absurd half-way house between existence and non-existence.

I do find this sort of story attractive. But it's not the Standard Account.

Anonymous said...

I did have something different in mind. As I understand it, on the line of argument you sketch, the worry is about why, on the supposition that a thing that is X comes to be from (some other) thing that is Y--the worry is about why X should come to be from Y rather than from W or Z or indeed anything else (or for that matter nothing at all). Or to put it from the opposite direction: if Y is not X, neither actually nor potentially, then what has Y to do with X, such that it should become X (rather than anything else or indeed nothing at all)?

I think this is a good worry but it's not the worry I meant to be attributing to Parmenides. Nor is it (I don't think) a worry that turns esp. on the quintessentially Eleatic fear of what is not.

I was thinking something more like this, that the reason Parmenides (and after him the others) think that what is cannot come to be is that this would require there having previously been a scenario in which what is not ineliminably figured. Put another way: the problem is not with this thing-that-is-not's being unsuitable as material--with its not being the right sort of thing that could become, turn into, something that is. The problem comes on earlier than that--it has to do so to speak with its simply being there, as a "component" (if I may speak that way) of the pre-genesis scenario.

Does that make sense?

Michael Pakaluk said...

Dear Anonymous,

This is very interesting. You seem to be suggesting, if I understand you correctly, that Parmenides' difficulty be understood as primarily this: if something came to be, it would have to carry with it into the future its origins (so to speak), and that would perforce have to involve 'that which is not', which is absurd. Is that your idea--that something which has come to be would have to have an impossible pedigree, involving nothingness? And then one thinks of Plato's conception of 'body' of having its seeds of destruction built in, etc. Correct me if I've not construed your thought aright.

Of course, still, the point would remain that, if your suggestion is correct, then the Parmenides of the standard histories needs some considerable adjustment.
MP

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid my thought was more pedestrian. I wasn't thinking that what came to be would carry its origins (sc. as a thing which is not) into the future, with the result that its own life or career would involve non-being (and be therefore unspeakably problematic), but only that its pre-history (sc. how things were before it came to be, back when it was not) would involve non-being (and be therefore etc.).

Michael Pakaluk said...

More pedestrian, perhaps, but more intelligible, it would seem, and sparing us journeys into Nothingness.

But then, if that was your suggestion, I'm (at least) almost back to where I was.

I was suggesting that Curd is correct in wanting to attribute no more strength to the arguments of Parmenides than is required to account for differences between the Milesians and the post-Eleatics of the sort you observe.

But I'm not clear how, on your proposal, the 'quintessentially Eleatic fear of what is not' can be restricted so as to be taken to rule out only generation and destruction, and not also--almost immediately, apparently unavoidably-- alteration (especially), growth, diminution, and imperfection.

Anonymous said...

We're close now but look--in Anax & Emp, there *aren't* any beings that increase or decrease or alter (or are imperfect). Yes, there are things that get bigger and smaller and alter (and presumably are imperfect). These things also appear and disappear--they are not permanent fixtures of the cosmos. But just that shows that neither are they beings. For if they were, then the Greeks would be right to speak of genesis and phthora...

(Right: by "beings" I mean things whose appearance or disappearance wd. be genesis or phthora. The fact that Emp & Anax don't allow genesis and phthora is a clue to which things they think are the beings, sc. *not* any of the things that come and go (or shrink or grow or alter...). But their beings *do* include things that move, and there are many of them.)

So, on the story I'm sketching, Anax & Emp are with Parmenides in denying all of those things--Parmenides' influence on them reaches that far. They depart from him just here, in allowing that being is many and that it moves. And (I think) it is comparatively less easy to see that fear of non-being must rule out plurality and locomotion. (For this reason I find it tempting to read Zeno and Melissus as having these two points esp. in mind.) Similar things go for the Atomists, except, unlike Anax & Emp, they appear to agree w/Parmenides (thanks to Zeno & Melissus?) that there cd. be no locomotion (nor plurality?) w/out non-being. And so they bite that bullet...

Michael Pakaluk said...

But, still, the methodological decision remains, even if admittedly the choice between the two options is much closer than I had made out at first.

Is it better to ascribe a stronger argument to Parmenides, which the post-Eleatics only partially embrace, or a weaker view to Parmenides, which is entirely accepted and adapted within bounds (hence a 'response' which is also an 'agreement')? In your view, does the text of Parmenides poem tilt in one direction or the other?

Also, it seems to me, still, that your reading is caught between two approaches. Do you hold that Parmenides is of a piece with the cosmological project which preceded, and that he gives 'physical' arguments, or do you think, with Owen, that he is radically discontinuous with what comes before, and gives 'logical' arguments? That is, on your view, how do we characterize Parmenides' 'fear of what is not'?